It’s Time to Decolonize Ethnomusicology

Aris Setyawan
Aris Setyawan
Posted underartethnomusicologyetnomusikologimusicmusik

In field of ethnomusicoloy, this question is quite important: which one is superior? Western music or Eastern music? Should there be war between the two camps? And is there still a demarcation that separates Western and Eastern music?

This question is important because, in the modern era, this line of demarcation should have disappeared. A teenager in Amsterdam can now easily hear Balinese Gong Kebyar music or similar experimental music played by Senyawa through Spotify or YouTube, supported by cloud computing technology. Cloud technology can also enable office workers aged 30 and over in Jakarta to easily access the full discography of The Beatles or Led Zeppelin on their newest devices. Folk, polka, or Latin music is also accessible to Indonesians as their daily soundtrack.

That’s in terms of ease of access to music. The demarcation line between East and West is already disappearing in terms of developing or composing music. There is no West and East anymore. It means that music is music. A universal art product that no longer needs to be labeled Western or Eastern, there is no need to compare modern and exotic.

The disappearance of this line of demarcation means that musicians in the United States can easily learn and compose Javanese traditional music, just as American musician Lou Harrison did when he released an album titled Gamelan Music. Or see how another United States musician, Dengue Fever, can bring “Genjer-Genjer,” a song that in Indonesia was banned by the New Order. Most recently, one of the most famous modern-era rock music master from Weezer, Rivers Cuomo, rearranged the song “Anak Sekolah” popularized by Indonesian maestro Chrisye.

On the other hand, many Indonesian musicians can learn music from outside Indonesia and then apply it in their musical arrangements. For example, singer-composer Isyana Sarasvati creates operatic and gothic, very European music in her album LEXICON. Isyana even mixed opera with death metal when she collaborated with Deadsquad on the song “IL SOGNO.” Or see how the band from Yogyakarta, The Cloves and the Tobacco, created Celtic punk music, originally developed in Ireland, Welsh, and Scotland. Still from the same town, Auretté and The Polska Seeking Carnival composed folk music, a la waltz, and polka from mainland Europe.

The merging of the world into one unit also makes it easier for musicians from various parts of the world to collaborate to create music. DJ Kasimyn from the Indonesian electronic unit Gabber Modus Operandi can contribute the gabber’s signature beats they play to Björk’s latest album Fossora. One of Indonesia’s famous musician, Dewa Budjana, collaborated with foreign musicians Jordan Rudes, Marco Minnemann, Mohini Dey, and the famous Sinden Soimah Pancawati on the song “Hyang Giri.” Indonesian-born soloist Sandrayati collaborated with Icelandic multi-instrumentalist musician Ólafur Arnalds on the song “Vast.”

That’s from the realm of the music industry. Then what about the academic realm? Do demarcation lines still limiting discourse or knowledge about music? Is there still a war between the West and East? Are music academics still debating which is superior, Western or Eastern music?

The beginning was a “comparative study.” Rooted in Europe is the science of musicology, a scientific discipline that studies music and its relation to the people who own that music. Musicology can be used to explain Western music. However, over time, it was felt that musicology could not be used to dissect non-Western music. Thus was born a branch of this scientific discipline called “comparative musicology.”

In his book The Study of Ethnomusicology, Jaap Kunst explained that comparative musicology is based on colonialism and orientalism. When Europeans (e.g., the Dutch) began to colonize areas outside Europe—especially in the East, such as the Dutch East Indies—these musicologists discovered much non-Western music that could not be studied through a musicological perspective. This is because non-western music differs greatly from Western music developed in Europe. Both from a musical point of view, such as the scales used, in terms of the organology of the instruments used, as well as the relationship between music and the people who own it.

In short, finally, musicology was modified into comparative musicology. Its function is to compare non-Western music that they encounter in their colonies. In the future, comparative studies transform into Ethnomusicology.

The term ethnomusicology is said to have been coined by Jaap Kunst from the Greek word ἔθνος (ethnos, “nation”) and μουσική (mousike, “music”). Etymologically, Ethnomusicology means a scientific discipline that studies the music of nations. Ethnomusicology is often defined as the ethnography or the anthropology of music. The name Ethnomusicology then became the standard definition used since it was coined by Jaap Kunst, until now.

On par with musicology, ethnomusicology has been colonialist and orientalist since in mind. This science creates a boundary line between Western and non-western music. For example, classical symphonic music with a diatonic scale is played by orchestras in Europe, and Javanese gamelan music with a pentatonic scale.

Reflecting on how musicians worldwide have the same bargaining values in this global village, and the demarcation line between Eastern and Western music has disappeared, it is time for the label of colonialism to be released from the science of Ethnomusicology. There must be decolonization in Ethnomusicology. The idea of decolonization is familiar in the field of Ethnomusicology. Since 2006, this idea has become a central topic of discussion among Ethnomusicologists.

For Ethnomusicology, this shift means that fundamental changes in power structures, worldviews, academia, and university systems must be analyzed as a confrontation with colonialism. The proposed decolonizing approach to Ethnomusicology involves reflection on the philosophy and methodology that make up the discipline.

Ethnomusicology decolonization took many paths. This proposed approach is that: i) Ethnomusicologists address their role as scholars, ii) the university system is analyzed and revised, iii) philosophy, and thus practice, as a discipline must be changed.

In 2016, The Student News Society of Ethnomusicology magazine contained a survey on Ethnomusicology decolonization to see their readers’ views on what Ethnomusicology decolonization entails. The different themes are: i) De-centralizing Ethnomusicology in the United States and Europe, ii) expanding/changing the discipline, iii) recognizing privilege and power, and iv) establishing space to talk about the decolonization of Ethnomusicology.

As a scientific discipline that is currently undergoing a process of decolonization, ethnomusicology must take part in helping to eliminate the demarcation line. Ethnomusicologists can not only study Indonesian traditional music with the keyword “cultural preservation.” Ethnomusicologists can also study music according to their interests, be it pop, rock, dangdut, black metal, or experimental.

Ethnomusicology should not be selective. Ethnomusicologists may discuss Barasuara, Sheila On 7, Nella Kharisma, Rhoma Irama and Soneta, Sigmun, Sunn O))), Rage Against The Machine, or musicians from anywhere in the world. Ethnomusicology must emphasize that there is nothing superior between Western and Eastern music. All are equal. Have the same bargaining value.

PS: Previously featured on The Jakarta Post.

Taggeddecolonizationethnomusicologyetnomusikologiindonesiajaap kunstMusicorientalism

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